Bahrain’s burial mounds have been the focus of numerous archaeological digs over the past sixty years. But there is still much more that can be learned from the people they encase, some of whom date back to 3000BC. Karim Hindily the UNESCO representative working with the Ministry of Culture and Information in Bahrain explains: ‘These are the densest concentrations of burial mounds found anywhere in the world from any period. They are an expression of the funerary practices of the Dilmun and Tylos eras that were prominent periods of trade between Mesopotamia, South Arabia and the Indian subcontinent.’
So far a total of 11 sites have been placed on a preliminary list by UNESCO, the preparatory stage for a World Heritage listing. To date, the Bahrain Fort (Qal’at Al Bahrain) is the country’s sole World Heritage Site, and its listing has provided the impetus for its preservation. However, in order for the burial mounds to be collectively listed, the government must act to preserve them, something of a touchy subject in recent years.
Salman Almahari, the Chief of Conservation for the Ministry of Culture and Information in Bahrain, is not oblivious to the threat they face. ‘The past 30 years have seen much urban development in Bahrain. Many burial mounds were destroyed in this process. We were forced to excavate what we could and documented the sites with drawings and photo’s for our archives. The artefacts that were recovered, like vases, glasses, weapons and bones, are stored in the National Museum. On completion of the excavation, building began for the causeway and other infrastructure during the 1970s. Now it’s imperative to have a balance between urban development and retaining these ancient sites.’
The Ministry of Culture and Information is encouraging cooperation with the land owners and is offering alternatives to preserve Bahrain’s heritage. An example of this is the village of Shakhurah which successfully blends the demand for housing with the preservation of the burial mounds by constructing dwellings around the mounds and maintaining them as a landscape feature. These mounds, some of the largest of the Tylos era in Bahrain, are now under the protection of the residents. Almahari said, ‘In the past archaeology has been generous to people establishing their homes on historical sites. The aim is not to prevent people from building their own homes but to consider relocation, building around or away from the sites.’
All building applications submitted to municipalities near archaeological sites are sent to the Ministry of Culture and Information for approval. This process has been instigated to halt any development that could affect archaeological sites, and ensures their survival.
The windfall for Bahrain’s tourism industry, were the country to get a second World Heritage listing, could be substantial. Almahari says, ‘This is Bahrain’s legacy, and the inheritance for future generations.’
1 Ancient burial mounds: Considered one of the largest graveyards in the world, 170,000 mounds punctuate the landscape between Hamad Town and A’ali and are a stark reminder of Bahrain’s rich history. Dating back to around 3000 BC, when the entire human population of the world is estimated to have been only 30 million, the burial mounds predate the Great Pyramid of Giza by five centuries. Some of the most impressive mounds can be found near A’ali village and are thought to contain the remains of the Dilmunite royal families. Although a significant number of the tombs were looted in ancient times, only a small fraction have been properly excavated in the modern age. The mounds remain under threat from property developers.
2 Saar digs: Although the exact location of Dilmun, a civilisation referred to in the writings of ancient Iraq, has never been confirmed, Bahrain lays a pretty strong claim to having been one of its focal points. Not least because the archaeological digs at Saar, which unearthed an entire 100 by 150 metre village, date from that period. Active from the third millennium BC, the Saar digs prove the existence of an organised society at that time. More organised, some may say, than the one in which we live now.
3 Diraz Temple: Situated in the village of Diraz along the Budaiya Highway, the Diraz Temple still remains something of a mythic site in Bahrain thanks to the fact that excavation on the site was discontinued, for no clear reason. Unearthed by a British expedition in collaboration with the Directorate of Archaeology between 1973 and 1975, the temple is unique in the region because of the use of huge cylindrical columns, which sets it apart from the temples of Mesopotamia. Estimated to have been constructed sometime in the third millennium BC, the base of the cylinders protrude an impressive 60cm out of the ground.
4 Barbar Temple: The discovery of the Barbar Temple remains one of Bahrain’s most significant archaeological finds. Although no one is quite sure which god the temple was erected in honour of, when the Danish expedition in 1954 uncovered it, it was clear that it was of huge historical value. Mesopotamian in style and dating back to the third millennium BC, the temple has a number of distinctive local characteristics as well as being similar in style to those found in Iraq. For those who like historical gore, the pen in which animals were kept prior to their sacrifice is clearly discernible.
5 Bahrain National Museum: Founded in 1988 at a cost of $30 million, the Bahrain National Museum is the keeper of Bahrain’s 5,000 years of history, and is an absolute must for anyone interested in the archipelago’s past. Although the museum is fascinating in every facet, its Dilmun-era collection is its true treasure. Pottery and bronzes line the exhibition cases and are a potent reminder that, despite all of our technological advancement, our sense of aesthetics hasn’t changed much at all.
6 Natural pearls: It’s not without reason that Bahrain is called the ‘Pearl of the Gulf’. Apart from being a hugely important and strategic trading centre, Bahrain possesses one of the world’s richest oyster beds. At one time 90 per cent of all Bahrainis were involved in the trade, which prospered for thousands of years. The industry collapsed in the late 1920s thanks to the Japanese flooding the market with cultured pearls, from which it has never recovered. However, Bahrain remains one of the few places in the world in which natural pearls are still harvested and sold, the Gold Souk in Manama being one of the best places on the planet to find them. Those looking for a monument to the trade can find one on the notorious Pearl Roundabout in the city centre.
7 Bait Al-Qur’an: A museum dedicated to the Islamic Holy Book, the Qur’an, the building was founded in 1990 and exhibits a number of rare manuscripts dating from the eighth century. With a library containing books in Arabic, English and French about Islamic history and the Holy Book, and an auditorium in which prominent Islamic scholars are invited to speak, the museum is a forum for Islamic thought. Of particular note is the central stained glass dome.
8 Al-Khamis Mosque: A testament to the rapidity of the uptake of the Muslim faith on the island, Al-Khamis Mosque is believed to have first been constructed around the year 692 (though some dispute this and put the year somewhere in the 10th century) making it one of the oldest relics of Islam in the region. Although the structure was modified in subsequent centuries, the site is adorned with Kufic script and some faded murals and is one of the highlights of Islamic history in the Gulf.
9 Currency Museum: The Bahraini Dinar is one of the strongest currencies in the world and also one of the youngest. Replacing the Gulf Rupee, the first Dinar was spent in 1965 and is the latest chapter in the long history of currency and trade in the country. The Currency Museum, part of the Central Bank of Bahrain, is a haven for numismatists and contains a couple of the oldest Islamic coins in existence. The museum will become even more relevant when Bahrain adpots the GGC common currency.
10 Bahrain Fort: A site actually dating back nearly 5,000 years, the area of the Bahrain Fort (Qal’at Al Bahrain) was first inhabited sometime around the third century BC, and was thought to be the capital of the Dilmun civilisation on the island. After thousands of years of continuous inhabitation, in the 16th century the Portuguese came along, bricked it off and built an impressive fort. Bahrain’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is an informative museum situated alongside it.
11 Arad Fort: Built in the 15th century in typical Arabic style, the fort came into its own during the brief Omani invasion at the beginning of the 19th century. Located on Muharraq, the fort has been extensively restored and now acts as one of the focal points of Bahrain. Best seen at night, when it is illuminated from all sides.
12 Tree of Life: With no apparent water source, the Tree of Life stands alone in the Bahraini desert and is reckoned to be well over 100 years old, and may be as old as 300. A species of mesquite, the tree is the camel of fauna, able to withstand long periods of drought without any apparent dehydration. Although some scientists reckon it must be tapping into an underground water source, this doesn’t explain the utter lack of any vegetation for miles around. A national metaphor for the resilience of the Bahraini character, local legend has it dating back to the Dilmun period.
13 Riffa Fort: Built by Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed, the fort was built in 1812 and was the seat of power in Bahrain until 1869. Like most of Bahrain’s historic sites, it is believed to have been built on a much earlier fort dating from the late 17th century. Thanks to rigorous restoration efforts, the fort gives a fantastic insight into the way in which the monarchy used to live.
14 Manama Souq: If ever there were an architectural palimpsest in Bahrain, the Manama Souq would be it. Winding roads, sprawling shops and crowds of people, Manama Souq is one of the most authentic souqs in the Gulf and, unlike some, little effort has been made to prettify it for tourists. Good news if it’s authenticity you’re after. Bad news if you are lost and in need of a toilet or taxi.
15 Sheikh Isa bin Ali House: The residence of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain between 1869 and 1932, this Muharraq icon is a great example of the 19th century architecture of the Gulf region. Comprising of four main sections (the family wing, the Sheikh’s wing, the guest wing and the attendants’ wing), the walls are covered in intricate Islamic bas relief and demonstrate the restrained opulence of the royal families of the region prior to the discovery of oil.
16 Siyadi House – Muharraq: Most of Bahrain’s pearl traders these days live in comparative squalor when compared to the former residents of Siyadi House in Muharraq, which was built by a well-known Bahraini pearl merchant at the beginning of the twentieth century. Looking like a fledgling fort from the outside, the inside is a wonderland of engraved walls and geometric design. The house has recently been restored and is one of the country’s historic highlights.
17 Bahrain International Airport: It may not be much in comparison to Dubai’s massive terminal building, but Bahrain’s International Airport is the region’s oldest. In 1932, a Handley Page HP42 named Hannibal flying between Delhi and London landed on the airstrip, making Bahrain’s airport the first of its kind in the Gulf. From the 1950s BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways) ran regular services to Karachi, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney, and in 1950 Gulf Air was formed. Although the airline is currently struggling, it was once the airline for the entire Gulf region.
18 Bab Al Bahrain: The Bab Al Bahrain is one of the most prominent buildings left by the British during their time in Bahrain. Built overlooking the waterfront (today, thanks to land reclamation, it is a good 10-minute walk to the coast), the building was designed by Sir Charles Belgrave in 1945. It originally housed government offices, though today it is better known as the gateway to the Manama Souq. In 1986 the building was refurbished to make it more Islamic in style.
19 First Oil Well and Oil Museum: On October 16 1931, oil started spurting from a spot just below Smoky Mountain, Bahrain’s highest point. The discovery was to change the face of the Gulf region, and came not a minute too soon: just a couple of years before the pearl market had crashed. Today this nodding donkey is one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, and is comparatively small when compared to the gigantic impact it eventually had. There is also a small museum here dedicated to black gold, though most people will want to head down to the financial harbour to see the true legacy of hydrocarbons in the country.
20 St. Christopher’s Cathedral: Bahrain has long been tolerant of different religions and cultures, and is one of the few places in the Gulf region where you can find a church. St Christopher’s Cathedral caters to the Anglican community and is another relic of British colonisation. In the centre of Manama and relatively low-key in design, the cathedral is in the diocese of Cyprus and is similar in style to the religious architecture of the Mediterranean.
21 Bahrain National Stadium: Despite the fact Bahrain was unlucky against New Zealand last month, Bahrain’s football team is still the best in the Gulf. Set to become a landmark, the Bahrain National Stadium was constructed in 1982 and has been refurbished and expanded numerous times. It can now hold 25,000 people, over two per cent of the country’s population.
22 King Fahd Causeway: Although construction of the causeway began in 1968, it was not until 1986 that Saudis began rolling off the causeway and into Bahrain. Costing $1.2 billion, and using 350,000 metric tonnes of concrete and 47,000 metric tonnes of reinforced steel, the bridge was the first land connection between Bahrain and its neighbours. A Bahrain-Qatar Friendship bridge was announced in 2008, while plans for a cross-GCC rail link surfaced recently, a decision about which will be made shortly.
23 Al Fateh Mosque: One of the world’s biggest mosques and by far the most prominent in Bahrain, 7,000 worshippers can pack into this landmark building near Juffair at any one time. Although during prayer times the mosque is closed to non-Muslims, at other times of the day Al Fateh is open to tourists.
24 Bahrain International Circuit: While Gulf Air did its best to put Bahrain on the map in the latter half of the twentieth century, it was the Bahrain International Circuit’s turn from 2004. The host of the Bahrain Grand Prix, the island’s biggest sporting event, around 600 million people watch Formula One drivers battle it out on the track to a packed crowd. The fact that the event generates around 2.5 per cent of the country’s GDP also makes it something of a rival to the famous First Oil Well.
25 Sheikh Isa National Library: Despite the fact that the average Bahraini reads for pleasure for less than seven minutes a year, the country’s National Library is one of the biggest in the Gulf. Attached to the Al Fateh Mosque, the library currently holds over 70,000 volumes though plans are afoot to increase this to a quarter of a million. Meaning the nation’s reading habits are not determined by the availability of masses of reading material.
26 Bahrain World Trade Centre: Thanks to Bilbao, every city in the world has spent the past decade or so scrambling for an iconic building. Until 2008, Manama was all boxy blocks and prefab-looking flats. Thanks to the Bahrain World Trade Centre, the country now has two giant shards of glass to look up to. Or, as some locals like to see it, two fingers pointing upwards in the direction of its competitor, the Burj Dubai.
27 City Centre Mall: Those people who like to complain there is nothing to do in Bahrain need only sidle into one of Bahrain’s shopping malls to see that you can do practically anything in Bahrain, so long as it’s shopping. Opening its doors earlier this years, and with Wahooo Water Park situated on the roof, City Centre Mall is where the weekend crush is at.
28 Durrat Al Bahrain: One of Bahrain’s survivors in terms of building projects, Durrat Al Bahrain has just opened its doors to its first residents. Looking from space like something vomited at the southern end of Bahrain island, this series of fish and horseshoe-shaped reclaimed islands offer some of the best residential units in the entire country. Although the development has got some ways to go before it is fully operational, we have it on good faith that living there is a dream.
And two for the future...
29 Villamar Towers: With construction well underway, Villamar Towers, part of the Bahrain Financial Harbour, will soon be one of the most enviable addresses in the country. With a unique twisting structure, the towers will form the centrepiece of the waterfront development. A mix of residential and commercial buildings, the project is likely to give the Bahrain World Trade Centre a run for its money.
30 Diyar al Muharraq: If you haven’t yet heard of Diyar al Muharraq, you soon will. Bahrain’s biggest ever reclamation project off the coast of Muharraq is set to transform the island’s residential prospects and give the country the one thing that is sorely lacks: a beach. The focal point of the project is a Miami-style sand strip, while the expected population of this 12 square kilometre development comes in at 130,000, which will make it equal in size to Manama when it’s completed around 2025. The first residents are expected to move in late 2011.
Saleh Asi Salman 43, artisan
I grew up in Karbabad Village, which is where lots of baskets used to be made. Before there were lots of men making baskets, but they were old and now most of them have died. I learned basket weaving from my grandfather. Even though I studied to be a mechanic, I didn’t really like that and much preferred making baskets, so have been doing this all my life.
I have been working at the Al Jasra Handicraft Centre for a long time now, for 11 years, and I make baskets here. Everything that goes into making a basket comes from palm trees, and you can make basket for anything: for dates, for chickens, for clothes or for a baby.
Most of the baskets that I make take around 11 hours, and I sell them for about BD8, though I am supported by the government because they like to keep the traditional arts alive. I also travel around the world to show my work. I was in Rome just a few weeks ago, which was nice but very cold. I have shown my work in Egypt, England, France, Spain and Australia.
I am also a teacher. I mainly teach young people both in Bahrain and in Qatar. But I will teach anyone who is interested. I also teach children in hospital and orphans, and sometimes I go to the jail and teach the people in there, all of which I do free of charge.
I would say to people who use computers all day, ‘You can’t always use a computer, so make time to do something else.’ It’s like a balance. If you come and see me, I will teach you how to make a basket.
Carina Abdulrahman, 25, rally car driver
I’m a rally car driver and at the moment I’m driving Mitsubishi Evolutions. In the past I have done the Caterham series, go-karting, rally, track, the Batelco 200cc and I’m driver at the hummer track. In terms of rally, there are no other female GCC nationals competing in rally right now, I’m the only one. I did my first race in August 2006, the Race for Bahrain, which is a competition to be sponsored for the Caterham series. I got to the final 10 from 300. The top three get sponsored and I came fourth, but a few days later a sponsor approached me.
In Jordan and Syria you have quite a few female drivers, and I think they have got used to me in Bahrain. Whereas in Saudi, for example, I am not allowed to compete, even as a co-driver. In Doha, there was one women driving over there, but she no longer competes. It is very much a male-dominated sport throughout the world.
My father has been a rally driver for 25 years and my mother used to be his co-driver, so it’s a big family thing. My dad has never said, ‘You’re a girl and you can’t do this.’ If I were to say, ‘But I can’t I’m a girl,’ he would say, ‘And your point is what?’
I have always been around the racing drivers, and I pretty much grew up with them so they are used to me. If I’m carrying a large can of oil or petrol around they don’t try to help me. I don’t want to be the type of person who says, ‘Oh, I’m a girl, can someone carry my tire for me?’ Luckily all the guys in Bahrain that I compete with are really nice people. At the beginning they were a bit hesitant. Then after a while they were like, ‘Yeah, well, whatever, do you want to come to lunch with us?’
I would definitely encourage other girls to get involved. Every time I meet another girl who has a thing about cars I tell her ‘Come down to the track! I’ll give you my car!’ We tried to get a girl go-karting team, but we couldn’t get sponsorship for it, then some of the girls decided to get married.
I have seen some really great female drivers in Bahrain speeding along the road, and I wish they would come down to the track. It’s not dangerous at all. At every single turn you have a marshal and an ambulance, a fire crew. If you do have an accident, the ambulance and fire crew are there before you have even got out the car.
The best experience I’ve had was at the Kuwait Rally. We competed in March, I was my dad’s co-driver. My goal is to compete with complete funding at the GCC or Middle East Rally Championship, and hopefully do well in that. It’s like Formula One, and most Middle Eastern countries hold a rally. But there’d still be an issue with Saudi, as I wouldn’t be allowed to compete.
DJ Outlaw, 26, music producer and DJ
I’ve been into hip hop since sixth grade. I was the only guy in the family with a massive collection of music. Every time my family had a party I was the only one with a stereo and a lot of CDs to play. I bought my first DJ system in 1997, and that was when I started DJing. In 2002 I got into producing and now run Outlaw Productions and work with local people like May Alqasim, the R&B singer, and Flip, who’s a rapper. I have an album called History in the Making coming out mid-December.
You can’t really compare the scene now to five years ago, because there was absolutely no hip hop scene in Bahrain five years ago. Now it is just getting better, and more people are getting involved who have a better understanding of hip hop. What we’re trying to do is eliminate the negative side of hip hop. We want people to know hip hop as a culture and not as the bling-bling, baggy clothes stereotype.
I used to be one of the only people pushing hip hop in Bahrain, with mix CDs and events. Every year I try to educate people, make them listen to more hip hop and different types, to make sure they are not just stuck into, like, MTV hip hop by the likes of 50 Cent. That’s pretty commercial. Real hip hop is like listening to poetry.
The music I produce is hip hop, but my roots are Arabic, so you’ll hear a beat with an Arabic flavour. The rapper raps in English, so I make him throw in some traditional Bahraini words.
Hip hop is getting bigger in Bahrain every year. Five years ago, there was nothing. Today we have more dancers, more people who are trying to rap. Back in the day it was just us. We used to get more criticism than support. Now we get more support than criticism.
Yasmeen Fraidoon, 26 Gulf Air first officer
I joined Gulf Air in July 2008 as the airline’s second female Bahraini pilot. After studying for a degree in Business at the University of Bahrain I applied for Gulf Air’s cadet pilot training programme, which sponsors the training required to become a pilot and offers a guaranteed job. Once I was accepted I went to Qatar Aeronautical College in Doha. After 20 months training, which included several flying hours, I returned to Bahrain to learn to fly Airbus A320s, and then flew with a training captain. I qualified as a pilot in December of last year.
Being female is not really a challenge. Most of the time I forget that most of the captains sitting next to me have never flown with a female pilot before. But they have been incredibly supportive and never made me feel any different from any other first officer. I really like it when other women give me support, or say they’d never thought of becoming a pilot, but would now consider it. Men also say they’re proud, but they don’t understand sex discrimination so it means more coming from a woman.
I consider myself lucky to be Bahraini as the Bahraini women’s role in society is considered to be one of the most advanced in the region. And that is what gave me the opportunity to be where I am today. And I’m not even the first female first officer to work at Gulf Air, I’m the second!
Sheikh Hassan bin Rashid Al Khalifa 33,rock star
When I grew up there wasn’t too much pressure to conform in terms of career. My dad was the first Bahraini pilot and started his own retail business, so we were pretty independent when it came to choice. Although my mom really wanted me to be an architect! While making music, I have had to sacrifice time with family, friends and myself! But music’s a good soul searching journey.
There’s a lot of pressure when I’m performing in Bahrain, but it’s worth it because the crowd is more intense here.
The best thing about being Bahraini is that you can get away with doing a LOT of fun things! Also, there’s no heavy crime. My favourite place is Al Dar Island.
Yasser Saif, 41, make-up artist
I do the lighting, decor and make-up for theatre, but my main profession is a make-up artist. I usually do the make-up for theatre for men and women, both comedy and serious drama. I studied to be an actor and director in Kuwait. When I was an actor, I used to do my own make-up because there were no other make-up artists in the Gulf. When people saw that I could do my own make-up they told me, ‘Help me with my make-up!’
I studied make-up in London, Paris and India and have been working in this profession for 28 years. I act maybe once or twice a year, but everyday someone is asking me to do their make-up. I don’t only do the make-up to make people beautiful. I do it for actors in theatre, TV, or in adverts. It’s is like a special effect. I can make their face look very different.
Today I run a company with my brothers and we are the only make-up artists in Bahrain. In the Gulf we make good money, but it is not the same as outside of the region. The make-up artists in Paris and London are rich!
Latifa Ahmed 30, taxi driver
I have been a taxi driver for 4 months now, and I have always been interested in this job. There is no difficultly in being a female taxi driver in Bahrain. All the male taxi drivers respect me and I like the people who I take in my taxi. I particularly like the expats because I get a lot of respect from them.
The thing I like most about being a taxi driver is that you get to meet new people and get to know the country. I think people here are quite happy to see a woman driving a cab, and they all like to take my taxi. I also think I get more tips than the men. There are a few female taxi drivers in Bahrain, and it is a good job for us. But, for me, if there’s a good opportunity to do something else, then I’ll take it. But for the time being, this job is great.
Think you’ll be pitching up in Bahrain for a few decades? Time Out Bahrain looks at what you can expect.
Bahrain is not the first Gulf state to roll out a vision for the future. Abu Dhabi’s 2030 master plan includes public transport systems, renewable energy infrastructure and affordable housing for a population that is expected to treble in size. Dubai 2015 might have to be put back thanks to the emirate’s current lack of cash, but many of the city’s ambitious plans, such as the Dubai Metro, have already been realised. So in two decades time, where will Bahrain be?
Money: Moving from a hydrocarbon based economy to a diversified economy in the future, the ultimate aim of Bahrain 2030 is to ensure that every household in the country has twice as much disposable income as they do now.
Subsidies: Subsidies for water, electricity, gasoline and food will be phased out, reducing over-consumption of scarce resources.
Education: Like most of the Arab world, the education system in Bahrain has been slow to realise the skills needed for the modern workplace, leaving Bahrainis at a disadvantage in the private sector job market and the country supporting an oversized public sector. The implementation of better skills training will aim to level the playing field between Bahrainis and expats and decrease the size of the public sector, which as it currently stands is unsustainable.
Privatisation: There will be widespread privatisation of public companies, in order to make them more efficient and competitive in the global marketplace.
Diversification: Bahrain will diversify its economy even further in selected sectors of non-oil economic growth, such as tourism, business services, manufacturing and logistics.
Transport: The recent opening of the Khalifa bin Salman Port, the proposed GCC rail link and Bahrain-Qatar Friendship Bridge along with the restructuring of Gulf Air will make Bahrain the true transport hub of the Gulf region and the centre of the Middle East.